World and Nation

Switzerland and US reach accord to curtail banking secrecy

Switzerland and the United States reached a watershed deal Thursday to punish Swiss banks that helped wealthy Americans stash money in hidden offshore accounts, closing the door on an era of bank secrecy and tax evasion. The formal agreement, which was announced Thursday by the Justice Department in Washington and will be presented by Swiss authorities Friday, outlined formulas for Swiss banks to pay up to billions of dollars in fines and to disclose details of American account holders, a joint statement said.

The deal calls for stiff measures that lift the veil of Swiss secrecy. Banks will be required to hand over details on accounts in which American taxpayers have a direct or indirect interest; turn over account information through treaty channels between the two sides; inform on other banks that transferred money into secret accounts or that accepted money when secret accounts were closed; disclose all cross-border activities; and close the accounts of Americans evading taxes.

Significantly, the deal does not cover 14 Swiss banks and Swiss branches of international banks that are under criminal investigation by U.S. authorities, including Credit Suisse, Julius Baer and several regional banks. Instead, it effectively covers the rest of the Swiss banking industry, home to a tradition of bank confidentiality and laws that have not considered tax evasion a crime. Switzerland is home to more than $2 trillion in overseas deposits.

“This program will significantly enhance the Justice Department?s ongoing efforts to aggressively pursue those who attempt to evade the law by hiding their assets outside of the United States,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.

He added that the program, outlined over 11 pages, “is intended to enable every Swiss bank that is not already under criminal investigation to find a path to resolution.”

The agreement said Swiss banks that follow the program will not be prosecuted and instead will be eligible to enter nonprosecution agreements that do not involve guilty pleas or criminal penalties.

Holder’s statement suggested that some unidentified Swiss banks were not cooperating and thus could face indictment. The agreement, he said, “creates significant risks for individuals and banks that continue to fail to cooperate, including for those Swiss banks that facilitated U.S. tax evasion but fail to cooperate now, for all U.S. taxpayers who think that they can continue to hide income and assets in offshore banks, and for those advisers and others who facilitated these crimes.”

The agreement will also turn up the heat on American clients who have not entered voluntary disclosure programs with the IRS.